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Austronesian music returns to its Taiwan roots with Small Island Big Song

The music, concert, and documentary film project is making waves around the world and spreading Austronesian culture

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(Small Island Big Song photo)

(Small Island Big Song photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Small Island Big Song (小島大歌) is a successful music and film project that connects with Austronesian culture by working with hundreds of famous musicians from 16 island countries, including Taiwan’s Indigenous tribes, Easter Island, Tahiti, New Zealand, Madagascar, and the Marshall Islands.

The project’s second album, “Our Island,” was shortlisted for "Best Aboriginal Language" and "Best Album of the Year" at the 33rd Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan. This followed a four-month Europe and U.S. concert tour.

Co-founded by Taiwanese producer BaoBao Chen (陳玟臻) and Australian music producer and filmmaker Tim Cole, the pair quit their jobs at the end of 2015 when they discovered what a dramatic impact climate change was having on Austronesian island countries. The Austronesians are a group of seafaring people from Madagascar to Micronesia who are thought to have originated in Taiwan.

The intention, since day one, has been to unite the “cultures of the Pacific and Indian Oceans through songs, a contemporary and relevant musical statement from a region at the frontline of the climate crisis,” according to the project’s website introduction.

Their project has so far produced an award-winning album and the documentary film “Small Island Big Song: An Oceanic Songline,” in 2019. It has also presented outreach programs and toured around the world.

“The words ‘co-creation’ and ‘communication’ are quite abstract, but for me, a touching moment between people is what we cherish most,” BaoBao Chen said. “If the story we want to tell is the relationship between man and land, then these two concepts cannot be separated.”

For the “Small Island Big Song” debut album, the team insisted on "island hopping" to Austronesian countries. The album, "Our Island," has a different approach.

Austronesian music returns to its Taiwan roots with Small Island Big Song(Small Island Big Song photo)

It looks at Earth as if it was an island, with the thought that if more people did this, then we would be more united in seeing the ongoing climate crisis more clearly. Sung by Austronesian islanders, the relationship between man and land is revealed through music.

Many female musicians were involved in "Our Island," including Amis lead singer Putad Pihay and Emlyn from the Republic of Mauritius. Putad said her relationship with Emlyn is like "twins" born at either end of the Pacific Ocean.

“She is me, she is literally the other half of me, her childhood is exactly like mine, including that she was bullied in school because of her identity,” Putad said.

The song "Listwar Zanset" (Our Ancestors), which the pair collaborated on, is written as a story of rebellion. The harmony corresponds to the overlapping life experiences of Putad and Emlyn.

During the project’s world tour, Putad wrote a song named "Malazhzai," which means to become one. Elements from Austronesian countries such as Mauritius, Madagascar, Taiwan and Papua New Guinea all come together in a cultural melting pot, conveying the same spirit.

On the track, Putad plays a traditional Malagasy instrument combined with a rhythm that is unique to the island of Mauritius, which was performed by her "cross-ocean-sister" Emlyn. They composed six songs together.

Putad is the lead singer of the band Outlet Drift and their song "The Lady of the Ocean" won "Best Indigenous Language Album" at the 32nd GMA. Talking about Taiwanese stereotypes of Indigenous music, Putad commented: “Every moment when we Indigenous peoples sing, we are recollecting a voice from the heart, being natural as we work, eat, and rest in daily life.”

Austronesian music returns to its Taiwan roots with Small Island Big Song
(Small Island Big Song photo)

One of the interesting things that came out of the Small Island Big Song world tour was the realization of how many similarities the musicians from countries scattered across the Pacific Ocean had. For example, their numbers from one to 10 are quite similar. Equally, it was found that music is a language that crosses all borders.

Small Island Big Song set a goal of entering the international market at the beginning of its conception. As such, it has taken part in trade fairs, music markets, music videos and more.

BaoBao Chen said the next three years will have an intense schedule that steadily builds up to Small Island Big Song’s ç. The plan is to continue touring worldwide and then return “home” to Taiwan.

At that time, a larger theatrical performance will be organised to create a concert that will promote the diffusion of Austronesian culture internationally.

Austronesian music returns to its Taiwan roots with Small Island Big Song
(Small Island Big Song photo)

Interview with BaoBao Chen

Q: Can you share with us the recording process of the Small Island Big Song project?

Chen: We hope to take music as the starting point. To build a modern Austronesian life cycle through songs, videos, and even road tours together. After we made our first album, every time we went to an island country to meet musicians, we would ask the musicians to take us to the places where they wanted to record and shoot. Interestingly, the locations are always in nature.

After recording, we brought the materials to the next island, letting the musicians listen and then overdubbed the vocal lines or instruments layer by layer. Eventually, after post-production from Tim (Cole), they co-created songs that happened in Austronesian Island countries.

Q: Small Island Big Song focuses on the ocean and Austronesian culture, rather than focusing on Taiwanese music. Can you share the reason for this?

Chen: How can we distinguish music from Taiwan or South Korea? How can Taiwan’s music be defined outside the Mandopop realm? I think that the connection between the Indigenous people of Taiwan and the Austronesian culture of the Pacific and Indian Ocean Island countries is a good story that distinguishes Taiwan from other Asian countries.

Indigenous music is booming in Taiwan and has become a big industry, but there are very few Taiwanese Indigenous musicians who can stand in the spotlight of the international stage and achieve international influence.

Lauren Laverne, a popular BBC radio presenter in Europe — who is also the artistic director of colors of Ostrava, one of Europe's largest music festivals — said after listening to our music and watching our performances, "Taiwan is definitely the root of the Austronesian island countries."

Easter Island musicians who participated in the project told me: "This is not a general music project, it has the same roots of all our ancestors and cultures when we sing together."

For me, this is the core of Small Island Big Song, and we're going to trace back to our roots and connections.

Austronesian music returns to its Taiwan roots with Small Island Big Song
(Small Island Big Song photo)

Q: There are musicians from the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and even Hawaii and Easter Island participating in the Small Island Big Song project. How did you contact them?

Chen: During the recording and filming of the first album, the Hawaiian musician, Kekuhi Kealiikanakaoleohaililani told us, "If you want to film, I will only film in one of the craters of Mount Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island."

On another occasion, we had to sail for three days to meet Madagascar Vezo Indigenous musicians because they live in places that planes and vehicles cannot get to. We also once chartered an "air taxi" to go to the outlying islands of Vanuatu to find musicians who needed to leave their homes because of sea-level rise.

Q: The albums “Small Island Big Song” and “Our Island” have songs co-created by musicians from many islands. How did you get these disparate people to work together?

Chen: The first album was an island-hopping production. The second album, "Our Island," was produced with an opposite approach. Due to the pandemic, we arranged remote video shoots every two weeks, so that musicians could discuss creative ideas, musical elements, and life sharing.

To complete the song, we recorded the demo then sent it to each musician, gradually adding more musical elements layer by layer. Because we are already very familiar with the instruments and musical styles of the Austronesian island countries, as music producers, we would also invite more musicians to play and stack different instruments with musical elements while recording and mixing.

Q: How do you tailor a tour or the rehearsal for musicians from all over the world?

Chen: Small Island Big Song is a group, a plan, mainly concentrated on large music festivals, and we are not restricted to "world music.” We spent three years approaching curators or directors of American universities and performing arts centers to talk about our plans for trips from three days to a week based on their funding and expectations.

Besides introducing Small Island Big Song itself, lectures featured topics on Indigenous women and the history of the Austronesian islands, and discussed how to exert influence as musicians to improve climate change. We also have dance and instrument workshops, with documentaries being played, and customized events.

Q: What do you think of Taiwan's Indigenous music?

Chen: Although there are many great works in Taiwan's Indigenous music industry, the relative lack of touring, international distribution, international music criticism, and exposure strategies after releasing the album, also coupled with the language barrier, makes it difficult to get a foothold in the international market.

Austronesian music returns to its Taiwan roots with Small Island Big Song
BaoBao Chen and Tim Cole, of Small Island Big Song. (Small Island Big Song photo)

This article was first published by Taiwan News' media partner Taiwan Beats, the world’s gateway to Taiwanese pop music.